2016: A Few of My Favorites
Guess what? While we weren’t paying attention, 2016 came and went, in the sneaky way years have of doing such things. One day it was here, the next we were pondering just how many resolutions we wanted to pretend to make. As happens in all years, in 2016 some people were utter jerks, others were saints, and the rest of us tried to fall somewhere in between. In short, life continued.
So while we can agree that bad things happened in 2016, let’s not forget there were nice things, too. Aside from the actual beneficial things that make people’s physical lives better, it was a good year for entertainment. Here are a few of the things that impressed me this time around. Just so you know, this list could have easily been three times as long.
Detectorists: Written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, Detectorists is a BBC show with a simple premise: Two friends, Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Crook), are members of the Danbury Metal Detecting Club. As might be expected, part of the story deals with the detectorists (never call them metal detectors) searching English fields for historical artifacts, but most of it follows their lives as they deal with more mundane things: domestic responsibilities, squabbles, pettiness, friendship. Life, in other words.
Though Detectorists is a show I love and respect, it’s not one I recommend to just anyone. The plot and characters develop slowly, nothing outrageous happens, and it’s full of seemingly insignificant moments. This, however, is where the show’s brilliance lies. If you’re looking for explosions, sexy people lounging around complaining about being sexy, or episodes of intrigue, it may not be for you. Okay, there is some intrigue, but it’s low-key. In the end, two series plus a Christmas special don’t come close to enough time spent in the world of Detectorists. Me, I’m holding my breath for series three.
Stranger Things: Netflix’s original series Stranger Things has received a lot of credit for being an homage to sci-fi films of the 1980s, an addictive sci-fi/horror series, a breakthrough in courageous and inventive storytelling, a platform for a group of insanely talented child actors. I’m going on record as saying it’s all these things and more.
Sure, Stranger Things is a throwback, but not to any specific era or genre. It’s reminiscent of good storytelling, which has never gone out of style. It also isn’t afraid to be fun and scary at the same time, and it doesn’t mind keeping the viewer in the dark, often for multiple episodes. It’s good enough that I’m still bracing myself for the imitators. You know they can’t be far away. Coming this summer from NBC: Odder Objects.
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others: I’m always on the lookout for quality science fiction, whether it’s written or filmed. There’s a glut of science fiction out there, but most of what I run across usually falls into one of three categories: Firefly rip-offs, stories in which a plucky teenager rescues the world from a dystopia, or the first novel in a twelve-part series devoted to an orphan or set of twins who somehow manage to fulfill and defy a mysterious prophecy. These kinds of stories were unique once, but let’s face it—they’ve been done to death and back.
Good news: Ted Chiang’s short story/novella collection Stories of Your Life and Others is full of beautiful, original science fiction. Originally published in 2002, the collection received new attention in 2016 because of the Nebula award-winning “The Time of Your Life” being adapted into the equally beautiful film Arrival. Each story in this book covers as much ground as a typical novel, whether it’s about the building of the legendary Tower of Babel, a man who receives an experimental drug treatment that turns him into a super-genius, or a mathematician who discovers an inconsistency in the fundamentals of arithmetic. If the premises of the stories suggest predictable fare, rest assured Chiang’s execution of them doesn’t even come close.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople: It’s tempting to say Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople surprised me by being such a superb film, but if I said that I’d be lying. The truth is, I’ve been a fan of Waititi’s work for a while now, having enjoyed his films Eagle vs. Shark and What We Do in the Shadows, and his brief stint on another kiwi-sponsored gem, Flight of the Conchords. Since Hunt for the Wilderpeople first came out in limited release, I’d been reading about it for months before seeing it, so my hopes were especially high. It was still better than I’d expected.
Based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress, Hunt for the Wilderpeople begins with a tried and true concept: A troubled city kid winds up in the country. Given this, what we expect is a winning combination of sassy kid mixed with grouchy uncle, stirred vigorously to yield many life lessons learned. Sure, that’s what we get here, but there’s more to it. This film is funny and moving, of course, but its chief appeal lies in the chemistry between its three main characters: Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a thirteen-year-old who’s done a few bad things, his crusty foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill), and the gorgeous wilds of New Zealand. It’s a delight to watch.
The Series Finale of Person of Interest: It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Bad Robot’s Person of Interest, a series I like to refer to as a science fiction tour de force disguised as a CBS crime drama. At its essence, the show is about tech genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and ex-government black ops guy John Reese (Jim Caviezel), two men who work together to help prevent violent acts before they occur. Part of the appeal of Person of Interest is that it takes place in a world like our own—with all the surveillance, intrigue, and spying we expect—but here, we get to see all the things happening behind the curtain.
After four years of introducing new players, developing subplots, and turning what could have been just another crime procedural into a work of art, Person of Interest returned for a thirteen-episode final season. As it turned out, nothing had been wasted. Going back and re-watching the earlier seasons, in fact, reveals just how well the writers planned this thing out from the beginning. Every character, plot point, and flashback turned out to have been essential to the story being told, and the series finale was everything it needed to be. It answered important questions while deferring others, and gave a few characters resolution while leaving others to go on fighting. As with most things in life, it turned out to be both an end and a beginning.
Westworld: When I first read that HBO was doing a serial adaptation of Westworld, I thought of the 1973 movie in which a malfunctioning Yul Brynner goes on a shooting spree at a sci-fi amusement park. It’s an interesting film, but in the same way most Michael Crichton projects tend to be—high-concept and thrilling but not especially inspiring. I didn’t think too much more about it, then, until I heard the Bad Robot crew was on the job. That got my attention.
The new Westworld works on many levels. Visually, it’s stunning, from the scenery and cinematography to the special effects. The musical score by Ramin Djawadiis is majestic, and the cast is exceptional. From a storytelling perspective, it’s sophisticated science fiction for people who enjoy grappling with difficult existential questions, the kind artists like Philip K. Dick, Stanley Kubrick, and Ridley Scott have posed in their works. Westworld is full of mysteries, but solving them isn’t the point. It’s full of surprises, too, reaching far beyond the usual what-if-robots-become-sentient ponderings, revealing itself to be about love, cruelty, humanity, and the human concept of suffering.
People of Earth: The trailers for TBS’s People of Earth looked interesting: A reporter goes to a small town to investigate a group of people who believe they’ve been kidnapped and returned by aliens. Of course, abduction-related hilarity comes next. It’s practically guaranteed. The pleasant surprise is that the folks behind People of Earth took a premise that seemed like it might’ve worked for a couple of episodes and turned it into one of the cleverest shows on television.
The problem with writing about People of Earth is it’s difficult to do so without giving away too much. So I won’t do that. However, I will say that the cast—which includes such comedy stalwarts as Wyatt Cenac, Luka Jones, Oscar Nuñez, and Ana Gasteyer—is as close to perfect as any I’ve seen in recent memory. Also, it’s produced by the folks who did The Office and Parks and Recreation. But most of all, there’s the character of Jeff. I won’t tell you who Jeff is, where he comes from, or what he does, but know this: Jeff is worth the price of admission.